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Funerals held in Berlin for human remains held by the Nazis

Construction workers made a gruesome discovery in 2014 during excavations at Berlin’s Frei Universität: human bone fragments. Over the next two years, thousands more bone fragments were found around the site, believed to be part of a “scientific” collection held by the Nazis.

Berlin held a funeral Thursday to honor them. Their identities remain a mystery, but they were undoubtedly victims of crimes committed in the name of science.

Human bone burials from excavations at FU Berlin

Human bones recovered in several excavations on the campus of Frei Universität Berlin since 2015 are buried in a public funeral service in Waldfriedhof Dahlem on March 23, 2023.

Jonathan Penschek/Photo Alliance via Getty Images

Frei Universität president Guenter Ziegler told AFP, “Even if we don’t know their names, it’s our responsibility to bring peace to all the victims, even after a long time has passed.”

The burial, organized by the university, takes place in a cemetery west of the city, where 16,000 bone fragments were discovered during archaeological excavations after initial finds.

The site where the bones were found was once home to the infamous Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics (KWIA). Founded in 1927, the KWIA was a center for Nazi scientists, including doctors, during World War II Joseph MengeleThe Auschwitz concentration camp is notorious for its experiments on prisoners.

Marks of glue and inscriptions on the bones suggest they were part of the institute’s collection, experts say.

The experts concluded that the bones came from “crime contexts” in particular during the colonial period, but “some bones may also come from victims of Nazi crimes.”

Experts say the bones belonged to at least 54 men, women and children, most of them at least two centuries old.

They also included fragments of rat, rabbit, pig and sheep skeletons.

After a long discussion, the university decided not to conduct any further investigation on the bones out of respect for the victims.

Dividing them into categories “according to different origins, different crimes and different parts of the world” would risk repeating history, according to Ziegler.

“Then we would have reproduced what we wanted to avoid: division into different classes,” he said.

Human bone burials from excavations at FU Berlin

Guenter Ziegler, president of the Freie Universität Berlin, speaks at a funeral ceremony to mark the burial of the bones found on March 23, 2023.

Jonathan Penschek/Photo Alliance via Getty Images

“Of course, I’d like to know who these people were, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to put what was done to the people in the name of the institute,” said Susan Pollock, the archaeologist who led the research.

According to Pollock, the bone fragments ranged from the size of a fingernail to 12 centimeters, and none were found completely intact.

As well as coming from victims of colonial crimes, they can also be acquired through grave robbing around the world.

Pollock noted that the first director of the KWIA, Eugen Fischer, conducted research in the German colonies of South Africa in the early 20th century.

The institute also houses a collection of human remains from around the world named after the anthropologist Felix von Luschan – who collected in part in the colonial context.

(By 1945 the KWIA had “spread racial hygiene throughout the world and participated in the crimes of National Socialism” according to Frei University.

The institute “turned human life into objects, objects of research,” Pollock said.

Today, a small rusted plaque on the side of a university building near the site of the former KWIA reminds visitors of the torture that took place there.

Pollock said Mengele sent “the eyes of people killed at Auschwitz to this institute”, but also other organs.

Germany had already worked extensively, albeit belatedly, to identify the remains of thousands of disabled and sick people exterminated under the Third Reich as part of the Nazi regime’s “euthanasia program,” supported by scientists and doctors.

The decision not to further investigate the bones found in Berlin was made in consultation with groups representing the alleged victims – including the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma and the Central Council of African Communities.

The first two particularly objected to the use of DNA analysis, which they said was “invasive”.

According to the university, the burial was carried out without any religious symbols and was not “Eurocentric”.

In 1992, 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl Interviewed by Eva Core, an identical twin who survived Mengele’s brutal experiments. At the time, Kor recalled how his twin sister, Miriam, helped sustain his life in Auschwitz.

“I was constantly fainting from hunger; even after that, I survived,” Core said. “Yet Mary saved her bread for a whole week. Now can you imagine the willpower that took?”

Core died in July 2019 At the age of 85.


(L-R) Miriam Ziegler, 79, Paula Lebovics, 81, Gabor Hirsch, 85, and Eva Kor, 80, pose with original photographs taken of them as children at Auschwitz during its release in Krakow, Poland on January 26, 2015.

Ian Gavan, Getty Images

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